LAS VEGAS — Way in the rear of the MGM Grand Casino, past legions of pasty, sun-deprived folk in shorts and tank tops, is the MGM Grand Arena where the Pac-12 Conference tournament will take place for the first time.
Washington arrived there Tuesday with codependent goals.
The overriding one is to win the tournament. To take that first step, it will have to stop Washington State’s Brock Motum when the Huskies (17-14, 9-9) face the Cougars for the third time this season at 8:30 tonight in the opening round.
Motum’s hot. The 6-foot-10 sidewinding left-hander took UCLA and USC to task last week when the Cougars (13-18, 4-14) were unlikely winners of back-to-back games. Motum averaged 25.5 points in the two contests, including a season-high 31 points versus USC.
The display left Washington coach Lorenzo Romar feeling like he was watching a different Motum than the player the Huskies faced earlier in the year. In fact, he feels this is a different Cougars team.
“That team that we beat here a couple weeks ago is not the same team we’ll be playing Wednesday night,” Romar said.
Washington’s top counter to Motum is 6-foot-7 defensive scrapper Desmond Simmons. Simmons absorbs scouting reports like Vegas tourists lose money — rapidly and repeatedly. He tries to nail down tendencies such as release points and preferred spots on the floor.
Simmons handcuffed Motum enough in Pullman during the conference opener for both schools that the Australian scored just 15 points. Motum scored 18 in the return matchup in Seattle on March 3.
Simmons leans on a simple priority when trying to stop Motum.
“Just don’t let him catch the ball,” Simmons said.
In the second game this season between the schools, Motum scored the first two baskets of the game with Shawn Kemp Jr. guarding him. Romar promptly replaced Kemp with Simmons. Motum didn’t score again until 58 seconds remained in the first half.
Despite that performance, Washington will again bring Simmons off the bench and the Cougars will attempt to navigate around him.
Washington State coach Ken Bone hopes that today Motum uses the same measured aggressiveness he used in the second game against Washington.
“He has done a much better job as of late of letting the game come to him and letting his teammates set him up,” Bone said. “Early in the year, he was a little too anxious at that time. I think he has settled down and played better basketball.”
The Cougars’ recent mini-upswing isn’t assurance of a successful tournament run. But last season Colorado had lost three out of four entering the conference tournament and ended up winning four games in four days.
Washington had won five of six and 10 of 12 last season to enter the tournament as the No. 1 seed. It lost in the second to Oregon State after earning a bye. Tales like those leave Romar a nonbeliever in pre-tournament momentum.
In one instance, when Romar was head coach at Saint Louis, his club lost to Cincinnati by 43 points to close the 2000 regular season before beating the Bearcats by 10 points five days later in the conference tournament.
“So, I don’t think (momentum) matters,” Romar said.
He’ll find out today.todd.dybas@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas